‘Singapore’s opposition facing the reality of politics’

After the applause comes the reality!

During last May's election, Singapore's opposition, especially the Workers Party, rallied together to avoid three-corner fights, dealing the government a serious setback.

Now, eight months later, these are troubled times for some opposition parties. Historically when elections are over, some of them begin to fight with each other.

Internal squabbling followed by mass resignations hit one party. Several representatives are jostling for the 2016 battlegrounds, causing unhappiness.

One elected opposition Member of Parliament allegedly was involved in an adulterous affair with a party colleague, both already married. He has declined to comment.

A few opposition candidates have started to attack each other over the web instead of planning for the future or engaging the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

The opposition woes are creating a poor image to the public of which 60 per cent voted against it. Many of the other four-tenths of voters, who gave their trust to it in the election last May, are disappointed.

Dose of criticism

Some have gone online to give the offending opposition members a dose of their own medicine. This shows that the new media is not as one-sidedly pro-opposition as the government made it out to be.

In the past few weeks, this is exactly what happened. Both the Workers Party (WP) and Singapore People's Party (SPP) were getting daily doses of criticism that used to be reserved for the PAP.

Relatively weak and fractious, it has to convince the public that it is a serious, transparent institution.

The recent events include:

1). The first crisis came from veteran politician Chiam See Tong's Singapore People's Party (SPP) after six senior members resigned en masse over leadership differences.

The popular leader, who once suffered a stroke, has passed the baton to his wife, Lina Chiam, facing criticism that he has failed to build a "consultative collective team leadership".

According to Today newspaper, the reason given by those who left "suggests that they were not prepared to cede iron-fisted control". He has denied it, but despite this, SPP is generally viewed as a one-man party.

2). Workers Party (WP) — An up-and-coming member of Parliament (Hougang), Yaw Shin Leong is alleged to have had an extramarital affair with a married woman from his party.

The 35-year-old had taken over from WP leader Low Thia Khiang and won by a larger margin. His future is now under a cloud. He has declined to comment, which makes it worse.

The party leadership is also keeping mum, leading the public to feel it is trying to let time erase public memory.

Surprisingly, it was a pro-opposition website that blew the whistle on Yaw. Most comments were negative, including from WP supporters.

Tatiana Ann Xavier says: "Yaw has become a liability not only to WP but the Opposition cause as well. The WP must make a public announcement regarding this issue."

The Patriot: "If Yaw really has committed adultery, then I think he should just stand down as an MP. A man who can betray his wife can betray his friends, his community and his country."

This compares poorly with the action of the ruling PAP which pulled out candidate Steven Tan at the last minute when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced.

Blows dealt

What happened does not mean that the Workers Party future is in jeopardy, but its image has been dealt a blow. In fact the general expectation is that it can do even better in 2018.

"Unfortunately many people already view the opposition as querulous and unreliable and recent weeks have not been helpful to it," said one opposition supporter.

There had been other cases of mass opposition resignations over leadership disagreements.

Last year the newly-formed Reformed Party led by Kenneth Jeyaratnam, son of the late JB Jeyaratnem, was confronted with a mass walk-out of committee members just before the election.

Chiam's previous Singapore Democratic Alliance was also hit by membership exits. All this contributed to a history of pathetic election showings by the opposition parties.

For most of modern history, the election fortunes of the opposition had rarely depended on its own merit, but on whether the voters liked or disliked the ruling party on a particular election.

If Singaporeans found PAP's policies or actions favourable to them, the opposition votes would decline; if they disliked them then opposition votes would go up.

This was until recently when the opposition won a historically high 40 per cent of the votes partly on the basis of better candidates. Most of them have enthusiastic leaders but the parties, with few exceptions, lack depth of history and experience.

While the opposition is marred by occasional squabbling and splits, the ruling PAP is also believed to be less united now than when it was led by Lee Kuan Yew. Some insiders said there are unofficial factions within the PAP leadership.

The reality is that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is not as tough or punishing when it comes to controlling the country as his father. Observers say that as a result of the looser control, there is less fear among party subordinates.

Lee Senior kept control with superior logic and the cane or punishing legislation. His successors, who are dealing with a new generation, have to resort to superior logic.

But they cannot rely too much on the cane to keep people in line.

A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 4 February 2012.

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